Vivien Garnès is Co-founder and Co-CEO of Upfluence, an influencer marketing platform for eCommerce & Social Commerce brands.
In his words, he shares:
- What inspired him to co-found Upfluence
- The difference between influencers and user-generated content
- Who the best influencers truly are
What does it take to be the Co-CEO at Upfluence?
Running an influencer marketing software company is an interesting role to say the least. As the co-CEO, I have a number of responsibilities; I need to make sure that the company has the right talent – that it’s heading in the right direction, has the right value proposition for the market, and has the right financials to make it work.
That being said, the advantage I see (which I think is very typical to entrepreneurs) is that I don’t have a standard or classic day-to-day, but there are a few constants here and there. For example, I [often] work with people internally: lots of hiring, talking to teams, asking questions – but also externally: lots of meetings with future clients, existing clients, partners, investors, and so on.
A lot of what I do [focuses] on numbers as well; it’s a very data-driven world. Our business model, a software as a service (SaaS) business model, is very data-driven as well, so you have to reflect, make sense of it all, and make the most reasonable decisions [possible].
And I [also] write – internal communications, external communications, way too many emails, some decks here and there, but I guess at the end of the day, it depends on where I see I can bring value to the organization at that specific time.
What drove you to start Upfluence in the first place?
It’s actually a bit of an embarrassing story.
Right after college, I was working in a marketing role in a local startup here in France and I really wanted to start my own business, so a college friend and I decided to start an eCommerce website back in 2011.
Before the days of Shopify, dropshipping, and all that, it was a little more labor-intensive – and what we decided to do (which was, in hindsight, a terrible idea) was to sell neckties. It felt like a good idea because it takes very low textile expertise, there’s only one size, the logistics are simple – but it turns out we weren’t the only ones [with] that idea… and the other thing that we came to realize is that nobody wears ties anymore. I was not even wearing a tie on my own wedding day.
And so combining all of this with a lot of small actors trying to do marketing, the Google Adwords of the world, and the acquisition costs were really prohibitive…
I had a box of 1000 ties to get rid of sitting in my living room – we had to get creative to try to sell. And we tried many things – most of which really failed quite spectacularly – but one thing that did work was reaching out to fashion bloggers at the time (sending them products, begging them for a review, following up a million times).
At the end of the day, a review would generate traffic that would turn into clients and so forth. Fast-forward a few months and that’s how we got rid of 1000 ties.
We realized that influencer marketing – even though that’s not what it was called at the time – really works, which is great, but it came with a couple of painful lessons as well.
Number one: It’s really time-consuming and labor-intensive to make it work. Number two: Knowing what bloggers to work with, how much to pay them, and things like that.
A number of times we ended up making mistakes and paying an influencer that would end up generating zero conversions – and that’s when we had the a-ha moment: wouldn’t it be nice to have a tech platform that could do that at scale and provide the data to make informed decisions rather than shots in the dark?
And from then on, we started to [build] a team.
Where do you get your marketing news and resources from?
A couple of different places – a lot of blogs. I have an RSS reader (I use feeder.co), which allows me to filter by keywords and have categories in different verticals of marketing I’m interested in.
And more specifically, there are a lot of marketing news sources I’m interested in: Social Media Today, Search Engine Land, Search Engine Journal – but being the CEO of a SaaS company, I read a lot about SaaS marketing as well. There’s a great resource called SaaStr and plenty of VC blogs, which are great as well; they talk about their portfolio companies and what works and what doesn’t.
And I would say tech news in general – TechCrunch, Venture Beat – but I also try to [learn from] a lot of communities (i.e. “community learning”). I try to consume content and contribute to the knowledge base on the community; I am involved in a couple of Facebook groups as well, where I can get curated information. And finally, some business books as well, both paperback and audiobooks.
Let’s talk about the influencer side of things. What is something interesting or surprising that you’ve learned over the last couple of months?
Maybe not super surprising, but it’s definitely interesting how symbiotic the relationship between the social media platforms on one end and influencers on the other end really is. And it looks like every decision that the platform takes actually factors that into a degree.
And if I zoom out, maybe just to contextualize this a tiny bit more, we’ve seen that platforms have had different strategies working with influencers, historically. YouTube, for example, they decided to share their ad revenue with creators.
So if creators were creating a lot of ad inventory by having very successful (or viral) videos, they would seed parts of the advertising proceeds. Other companies have had different strategies – Facebook, Instagram, for example – but don’t pay ad revenue. That being said, they always made sure that the influencers were very easily accessible from their brands so that they could create direct partnerships with brands on their own.
And other companies did none of that; I’m thinking Snapchat in the early days when there was real potential for talent and creators everywhere; that being said, Snapchat was not giving any ad revenue to creators – and the creators were extremely hard to find because it has no search engine feature, nothing like that.
It was very hard for influencers to monetize and become visible by brands – to work and to make a living essentially – so as soon as all the other platforms started to implement the story format, there was this mass exodus from Snapchat to any other platform. And I think serves as a very good reminder in industry that social media platforms need influencers. Then, you create content that actually gets more people to sign up, more people engage with the content, and that’s the power of generating authentic content and what you can bring to the platform.
Maybe not that surprising – I think it’s been a long time coming – but every single new feature is a very strong reminder of that.
What do you think the relationship is between user-generated content and influencer marketing?
If you zoom all the way out, it’s the same mechanics. The brand tells a story via a proxy and that proxy is going to be a user/client/influencer. And the fact of the matter is that there’s actually an interesting overlap between the two – meaning, at times, the users are going to be influencers themselves. To me, that’s really the sweet spot where that magic happens because in this world of influencer marketing, sometimes there’s a lack of genuine content. Authenticity is a little bit criticized and I think for good reasons, but even an influencer is actually a user – meaning he or she has spent their own money acquiring or using a product.
And so it’s the actual use of a product – and not something that’s been monetized – that’s really when I think the best performance happens and the best scale can happen as well.
What do you think people in marketing need to stop doing?
Disclaimer: Our clients at Upfluence are exclusively companies who sell online, so eCommerce, direct to consumer, online retail, you name it – mostly SMBs and mid-market; we do very little of the very large company, blue-chip enterprise kind of clients.
Every company has their own situation, but with COVID, the real explosion of eCommerce that we’ve seen is on the consumer side – where more and more people who had never bought online before had no choice but to do it. But also on the merchant side – we’ve seen brands who historically had not sold a single unit online and had to make the jump all of a sudden.
Combine that with “The Cookie Apocalypse” – where devices and browsers are limiting the support for third-party cookies – on one hand we have an increasing competitive intensity. On the other hand, we have fewer options and inventory. And so what we’ve seen is that causes acquisition costs to skyrocket and become prohibitive. So we’ve seen a lot of our clients, as a result, spend less and less in programmatic ad buying – even on social media, which was for a long time, a strong performer.
I guess that would be my blanket recommendation, unless your unit economy as a business is great… in which case don’t stop – double down. Every situation is different.
What are some best practices when it comes to working with an influencer?
Look inward and try to excavate smaller folks who love your brands to bits, who love it so much, that they have spent their own money. And there are so many benefits to doing that. Number one: we’ve measured that, the scale is of course, much greater because we identify anywhere between 2% and 4% of a brand’s client base as influencers – influential customers to a degree.
So if you have a hundred thousand clients, historically, instead of starting your influencer marketing effort from zero – you start at 2, 3, 4,000.
Item number two: on top of the scale efficiencies being much greater, we’ve measured that when you reached out to influencers within, as opposed to an outbound capacity, they are seven times more likely to work with you. They also tend to be half the cost on the partnership basis and also they tend to perform better – the content is more genuine and looks more credible because these folks have used the product – sometimes for years. So at the end of the day, that can really play on both sides of the equation: it maximizes performance, but also minimizes the investment, both, in time and monitoring.
Are there any specific trends that you’re seeing within the influencer marketing space?
One trend we’ve seen a lot, particularly accelerated by COVID, is Social Commerce – meaning how do brands leverage influencers to sell products? Now, it used to be that influencer marketing was all about awareness. How many followers do they have? What’s their reach? What’s the impression? And so on.
But with COVID, it looks like not only did we go much further than the marketing funnel – and now the expectations of a brand are much lower; they’re now trying to think in terms of how many conversions do you bring? What’s my GMV generated? What’s my ROI? Which are, in my opinion, much more interesting metrics.
But also, I think the readiness of influencers to work with different kinds of incentives is really starting to show as well. It used to be that if you wanted to hire an influencer that was one lump sum, you were facing the risk, the influencer was putting in work – that was the end of the agreement.
More and more, what we see is smaller upfront costs and an incentive that really aligns with everyone’s interests – so it can be a coupon code that gives a commission or sometimes we see it’s performance-based so influencers who have generated virtual performance in the past are very confident in their ability to sell, and they can actually make a lot more money by removing the risk factor from the brand’s perspective. That’s a very big trend that I think will intensify in the years to come.
What are marketers struggling with when it comes to influencer marketing?
It probably applies to all areas of marketing, but it’s virtually impossible to apply someone else’s playbook to your business because every business is different.
Every business has their own specific unit economics, don’t have the same breakeven point, gross margin rate per product, customer acquisition costs, customer lifetime value, and so on. So, they can’t necessarily commit the same amount of resources. They don’t have the same target audience, demographics, psychographics, geography, whatever it is.
For that specific reason, someone’s playbook who’s working very well over there will not necessarily work very well over here. My hot take is as a marketer within an organization, you’re probably the best possible person to figure how to apply the playbook, how to create the playbook for influencer marketing, or any kind of marketing to your organization specifically.
And even though you might be tempted to work with agencies or a consultant who’s done it a hundred times, they’ll come in with their own biases, their own recipes, and not necessarily try to understand as deeply as you already understand your business. So I guess, starting a new blank page, it might be a little bit intimidating, but it’s also a great way to make great changes for your marketing organization and your business as a whole.
What does the future of marketing look like when we’re talking about influencer marketing and UGC? What do you predict?
I do believe the future of influencer marketing has a lot to do with UGC. We have this sort of vision internally which we call – and probably doesn’t mean much in English, but bear in mind, we are French because nobody’s perfect – ubiquitous influence. Meaning, historically, influencer marketing and most marketing channels have been seen as silos with little to no communication outside of sometimes the people who own it or outside of the marketing team. But what we’re trying to see is that influencers are everywhere – just like your users are everywhere. They are in your CRM, they are offline, maybe you have a brick and mortar component and influencers can swipe their credit cards on your payment terminal. They are in your customer support tickets. There are basically an infinity of use cases where it goes [beyond] just the scope of marketing.
And what we see is that role of platforms like TINT or Upfluence will be really to be all across the different use cases to offer integrations, so that let’s say tomorrow you are a customer support rep for DTC brand, you show up to work in the morning, you have a hundred tickets that you have to go through. How do you know which one has been made by an influencer? How do you know you have a potential PR crisis? That you have an opportunity to make an outstanding customer experience for that specific person – throwing this potential PR threat into an opportunity?
This is among many examples of how I think marketing is going to become more transversal in an organization, including UGC and influencer marketing. And I guess that impacts the marketer’s lives in a couple of ways, including that we will have to be developing new skills – one of which will be to understand how computer systems communicate with one another (i.e. understand what an API is). I know what’s an I-PASS like Zapier, or integration, and so on, but marketers will probably have a more holistic vision of marketing instead of just their niche thing that they’re very good at – to have more of a business understanding, in general, to really understand how what they do really impacts the business as a whole.
Do you have a specific book or podcast or person that helped shape your career?
It may not be a marketing book, but a book that left a very strong impression on me is the Hard Things About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz – which is more of an entrepreneurship book, where he tells an incredibly tough journey into building the incredible company that he built and eventually sold to HP.
An extremely tough journey, but not discouraging at all… it’s quite inspiring.
It’s very practical and a lot of things I still think about day to day, even though I think I first read this book over 10 years ago now.
When you need to unplug, who, where, or what do you tend to look for inspiration?
I do read a lot – not necessarily marketing or business books;I read a little science fiction as well and then I think that helps. But, in general, I think I try to look in adjacent spaces; sometimes you’re so focused on what you do day in, day out, every day, that looking at something different can give you a different perspective, a different spin on the same topic. So, I think it’s important not to be really in close circuit into what you do every day, but try to expand.
And maybe the last thing – more on a personal note – but I like to define myself as a musician in remission.
I used to do a ton of music before I started Upfluence and had kids. And sometimes music also can remind you to think at the moment, to improvise to a degree, to let go – especially me. I tend to overthink things and overanalyze sometimes. This spontaneity is good to be reminded of through music (at least that’s how I think about it).
Do you play any instruments? Do you sing?
I thank God I don’t sing – I do play instruments. I started with classical guitar when I was six, then I had a metal band for many years and we toured all across Europe. We had a record deal – it was back in the day when we pressed CDs.
When we started Upfluence, I had to put things aside, but I still play guitar quite religiously when I have the chance.
Do you have any advice for other marketers or entrepreneurs who look up to you?
Number one: try to play on your strengths (rather than mask your weaknesses). Yet, don’t be 100% clueless about what your job might be impacting. What I mean by that is, especially in the marketing world, I think there’s this fantasy of the perfect marketing person, who’s both a great quants person and at the same time, super creative – which I tend to believe doesn’t exist; it’s what we would call in French a five-legged sheep, something very hard to find.
So let’s say if your trade, for example, is copywriting, go ahead and be an incredible copywriter – but at the same time, try to understand what an A/B test is, try to understand how to analyze the results, try to understand how a budget works. You don’t have to be great at it. You only have to be mediocre at it, so you can really make your trade work for the organization. And I believe having both of these understandings will make you, as a cooperator, 10 times more valuable to the organization than just being a specialist.
How do you wind down from a long day of work?
I’m a simple man and I’m now a family man. I have two kids, so I don’t know if wind down is the right word because my kids are seven months and three years old – but it’s definitely great to take some family time. I try to do as much sport as I can to be somewhat healthy, given the crazy workweek that I tend to have; I do music when I can (it’s important to have a creative outlet as well).
And, of course, I’m blessed to have great friends who always say yes to having a drink and try to learn something.
What are you excited about or looking forward to?
We’re living in the world right now where I know it’s difficult to be excited about a lot of things because we’re barely getting out of COVID. This war on Ukraine, impending inflation/economy crisis, and many reasons to worry in this world – but I think we all aspire to a little sense of serenity or relative serenity in the world. And I guess what I’m excited about is to see what we can do as individuals and as organizations to make that change happen.
I was referencing Ukraine; we have an office in France, so we are trying to see what we can do to relocate some people who are refugees in Poland, Moldavia, Romania, and so on to relocate them, potentially give them jobs. A company is such a great tool to make a change in your own little microcosm that you somewhat control the variables of, so I think it’s too bad to pass on that opportunity.